Interview: Downloading the Facts from California’s First Groundwater Plan Assessments


Groundwater is pumped from a production well to a nearby agricultural canal in Yolo County.

What the first determinations mean for water management statewide


In June 2021, the Department of Water Resources released the first groundwater sustainability plan decisions ahead of the statutory deadline identified in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – commonly called SGMA.  The long-term planning required for SGMA will provide a buffer against drought and climate change and over time will contribute to reliable water supplies regardless of weather patterns in the State.

The Department hosted a live questions and answer webinar in late June to provide a public forum and opportunity to engage with the SGMA community on these decisions. For a recording of the webinar, please visit DWR’s GSP website.

To provide more insight into what these decisions mean for advancing sustainable groundwater management, we spoke with DWR’s SGMA’s Technical Manager Steven Springhorn.

Steven, tell us what did DWR just recently release? Why these four basins?

We released two assessments documenting that plans for the Santa Cruz Mid-County Basin in Santa Cruz County and 180/400 Foot Aquifer Subbasin in Monterey County were approved. We also sent letters to the Cuyama Valley Basin and Paso Robles Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to notify them that their plans have one or more deficiencies that need to be addressed. These letters are not formal plan assessments, but instead a request for a consultation meeting with the GSAs to discuss actions necessary to improve the plans.

Our review team was committed to releasing assessments as early as it could to provide examples to the entire SGMA community. There were some clear examples of what these agencies did well and where others can improve their planning efforts, but these are lessons that all agencies can learn from. While groundwater sustainability plans for all basins are complex, these four were less so – each one represented by a single plan for the entire basin and geographically, more isolated basins.

Can you tell us what made DWR choose to issue notification letters to the Paso Robles Subbasin and the Cuyama Valley Basin, instead of simply making a final determination that those plans were incomplete?

As identified in SGMA, DWR has the ability to consult with a GSA about the time needed to correct their plan if DWR’s review team identifies one or more deficiencies. These are documented in the notification letters. These letters provide DWR a way to request a consultation meeting before making a final determination. For these two basins, that final determination will be issued no later than January 2022 providing the GSA until July 2022 to improve the plan if using the full 180 days. The exact manner in which the GSAs respond (e.g., whether the response requires a plan amendment) will be up to them to determine, as SGMA provides locals that flexibility. Materials provided back to DWR will be made publicly available.

Now Steven, there are 16 other basins awaiting a determination from DWR by the January 2022 deadline. What can GSAs be doing now to prepare for a DWR notification?

One advantage to this approach of releasing determinations earlier than January 2022 is that all other GSAs can get a read on how DWR is reviewing the plans. If they haven’t already, we strongly encourage them to read the materials from this first release to understand how DWR has evaluated the GSPs.  We would also urge GSAs in basins with GSPs under review to begin planning for how they will work quickly with their GSP development teams, including staff and consultants, and local decision-making bodies, such as local advisory committees and Boards, if DWR provides notification that deficiencies need to be addressed. We will release subsequent GSP assessments in a staggered manner throughout 2021 and early 2022, with the most complex GSPs that take more time to review coming at the end of that timeframe. This will allow DWR to meet our statutory deadline to review the plans in two years. Lastly, we recommend reviewing our fact sheet that summarizes the process for each plan evaluation pathway.

Steven, can you briefly summarize DWR’s findings of the first four basins?

All plans include sustainable management criteria which are fundamental for defining sustainability in each basin and improving water management. These criteria provide a threshold for how the GSA measures impacts – or as the law calls them, undesirable results – based on groundwater conditions. One example includes how low groundwater levels can go and the goal for where groundwater levels are considered sustainable. This provides both a structure and operational flexibility for managing groundwater in a way that matches the specifics in each basin. Since these are new criteria in these first-ever plans, we are finding that additional justification is needed for how the criteria were developed to support groundwater use in the basin without causing undesired effects.

Some of the key themes in these first plans include the need to address communities that rely on groundwater for drinking water as well as water quality concerns. Almost 85 percent of all Californians rely on groundwater for some portion of their drinking water supplies. These first plans show how serious of a priority safe drinking water is for the Administration and how SGMA is one of many regulatory programs that are addressing drinking water challenges that impact rural and often vulnerable populations in our state. 

In closing, what would be your parting thoughts?

Where California’s surface water has been managed for the last 100 years, the sustainable management of groundwater is a relatively new statewide initiative. Under SGMA, locals have the flexibility to develop solutions over the next 20 years to improve groundwater conditions. This provides time and many pathways for locals to continue progressing and adapting. This is a marathon race and each leg of the race is important and builds upon each prior mile marker.  

Along those lines, we don’t expect perfection – no one can run a marathon without training – but we do expect the locals to take seriously the actions included in our determinations. Those that are approved, we are still going to recommend they address certain aspects of the plan in the five-year update. For those that are missing detailed information, we are going to require they fill in those gaps. Either way, locals must work together with the interested parties in their basin to operate their basins more sustainability. Collaboration breeds innovative solutions, which we are going to need more of for SGMA to be successful.